By: Dr Nicky Priauix
To those in the know, the latest so-called ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’ into ‘Freedom of Conscience in Abortion Provision’ is about as much a Parliamentary Inquiry as MPs having a pint after a long day in the Parliamentary drinking holes constitutes an official Parliamentary Inquiry into Beer Quality. This ‘inquiry’ invites MPs, members of the public, academia and other bodies to make submissions about s.4 of the Abortion Act 1967. Driven by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pro Life, welcome to another run of what Unity described as the pro-life’s “brand new toy… the sham ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’”.
A sham? But it looks official!
The website has an “official” look and is adorned with the Crowned Portcullis (more on this in a moment). Describing itself as a ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’ suggests that it is the official business of Parliament. But that, it is not. For those who read the small print below the ‘make an online submission’ button, will find stated:
“This is not an official website of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either of House or its committees. This Inquiry is run by the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group. All Party Parliamentary Groups are informal groups of Members of both Houses with a common interest in particular issues”. [Emphasis added]
All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are ‘informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament’. As Paul Beresford MP highlighted in a House of Commons debate around APPGs, “many, including those who should know better – I include some journalists, relate them to Select Committees” (HC Deb, 13 May 2014, c714). Indeed, that many lack the political literacy as to the internal workings of Parliament and are uncertain of what weight to afford an APPG as opposed to a Select Committee, worked strongly in the favour of Fiona Bruce MP in the last sham ‘abortion and disability inquiry’. Headlined as an ‘inquiry’, The Telegraph promoted this get-together to the status of a ‘cross-party Commission’, drawn together to investigate the disability ground of the Abortion Act 1967. However,
“It is not a Parliamentary Inquiry at all, it’s just desperately trying to look like one when, in reality, it’s nothing more than an ad hoc group of MPs and Peers with a predetermined agenda that they’d prefer the general public not to scrutinise too closely” (Unity, 2013).
Designed to deceive: Abortion and Disability ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’ in 2013
Rewind back to Fiona Bruce MP’s ‘Abortion and Disability’ sham parliamentary inquiry in 2013. The huge Crowned Portcullis emblazoned on the website (the webpage is no longer available through the domain name http://www.abortionanddisability.org/), the official language, no hint of an All-Party Parliamentary Group backing these proceedings, no disclaimer as to this not being official business – and of course, some media coverage, including The Telegraph all suggested that this was official business. You’ll find various academics who cite participation in or the provision of written evidence to this ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’ and I’ve taken some refuge in not being the only one tricked. It’s even in my CV as part of an electronic trail for evidence of my wider public engagement and potential for impact; but the real value lay more in what I learnt about what I didn’t know, and for feeding into a subsequent official inquiry about APPGs, largely by virtue of my rage (and embarrassment) at being caught up in a pro-life sham.
The presentation of the Conscience Inquiry is somewhat more transparent than the ‘Abortion and Disability Inquiry’; there is at least some text on the website stating who sits behind it. Nevertheless, the website in its broader glory violates recently created Parliamentary Rules on APPGs designed to guard against precisely what is achieved here – that APPGs are not mistaken for ‘Select Committees’ and official business of Parliament. Ironically, despite the introduction of those Rules, the APPG for Pro-Life’s ‘Conscience Inquiry’ Website looks more convincingly like official business than previous attempts.
An Inquiry into ‘inquiries’: Transparency
Despite the disclaimer at the end of the Conscience Inquiry, the presentation of the website and attending documentation will still trick some – the placement of the disclaimer is hardly cards face up on the table. That coupled with the wrong logo – notably the kind that appears on Select Committees – it still attempts to present the illusion of officialdom to the broader public and indeed, to unwitting journalists who ‘should know better’. It may be that through my anger, embarrassment, and indeed, fortunate timing that a diminutive victory had been won. At the point of the abortion and disability inquiry, APPGs had already been a matter of Parliamentary concern, and an Official Commons Select Committee Inquiry, led by Jack Straw MP was already underway. My attempt to escalate a complaint that had nowhere to go, bouncing between the Standards Committee, the two Houses and then the House of Commons Information Office, owing to the inability to pin the ‘abortion and disability’ inquiry clearly to an APPG, and by virtue of this not constituting ‘official business’, led to the suggestion to submit late evidence into the House of Commons Committee on Standards on All-Party Parliamentary Groups 2013-14:
Written evidence from Nicky Priaulx
I have been told that the Inquiry into APPGs will not be exploring specific case studies, so would limit my response to this […]:
- In light of my experience in relation to an Inquiry that I have subsequently found is neither official business nor clearly aligned with an APPG (but implicitly is), Inquiries which do not constitute official business should not be permitted under any circumstances to present themselves as Official Business in respect of correspondence, websites or any other material. This points however, to a second concern.
- Peers and/or MPs undertaking a cross-party investigation of an issue where it is not official business should clearly identify which APPGs, underpin the basis of that investigation; as I have found, the failure to do this means that there is no recourse for standards investigation. Rules applying to the APPGs, which explicitly requires that APPGs make clear that their business is not official, have no application in circumstances where an APPG does not appear to form the basis of a so-called Inquiry, Committee, or Commission. Moreover, in the absence of it being official business, the standards which relate to this cannot be applied. In other words, there is a black hole into which some work being undertaken in Parliament falls, but work which is of a misleading character and is not subject to rules which apply to APPGs or Official Business.
… Documentation relating to a particular case omitted.
The resulting report and package of measures are detailed under the Guide to the Rules on All-Party Parliamentary Groups (February 2015). This makes for worthwhile reading. Rule 21 states:
Groups must be transparent about their nature, membership and funding. In particular, they must avoid presenting themselves in a way which could lead to confusion with Select Committees. They must make full disclosures of any support received for their publications. An APPG must:
- Use the group’s full registered name, including the term ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group’ in all its communications…
- Publish details of its formal meetings in advance, on the All-Party Notices, along with the names of any external speakers and details of a parliamentary contact;
- Publish on its website (or provide on request) the following information:
- A list of active members (both parliamentary and external);
Rule 24 detailing ‘Information to be shown on reports and other publications’ includes:
A group’s website and its social media feed (if any) must give the contact details for the group’s chair, and secretariat and/or public enquiry point (if it has one). All such websites and media feeds must carry as disclaimer as follows:
“This is not an official website [or feed] of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. All Party Parliamentary Groups are informal groups of Members of both Houses with a common interest in particular issues. The views expressed in these webpages are those of the group.”
Rule 25 dealing with Portcullis emblem states:
APPGs who wish to use the crowned portcullis must use the bespoke APPG portcullis emblem, which is available on the APPG Page of the parliamentary website. Unregistered groups must not use the crowned portcullis in any form.
Finally, Rules 33 – 36 deal with ‘If a Group breaks the Rules’ – well, it is to that matter that I now turn to deal with the admittedly tiny matter of the Portcullis emblem under Rule 25 and the continued reference to ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’ under Rule 21. If it makes the new pro-life toy harder to play with, then every bit helps.